Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Story of the Dysfunctional Family

Luke 15:11-32
September 22, 2013
William G. Carter

If you read the Bible, you won’t find a lot of healthy families there.

That fact is usually lost on people who wave the Good Book around without ever opening it. Perhaps they pick and choose their selective verses to support pre-existing points of view. Or somebody will go on TV to grandstand on the great issues of the day, attempting to squelch all opposition by citing a verse from Leviticus and declaring, “The Bible says . . .”

Well, the Bible says a lot of things. We might expect that if we remember the Bible was written over twelve hundred years or so to people in a shifting culture. Nations rose and fell, rulers came and went, economies grew and dwindled. Yet God persisted in speaking in many ways through a variety of people. Some of that was remembered and written down. So the Bible says a lot of things.

And one message that it repeats is that the human family is a great big mess. A sloppy, disastrous mess. That’s why the nations rise and fall. That’s why no king or queen has permanent tenure. That’s why greedy people devour the weak and needy. We are a mess. And this gets played out in our families.

Whatever else we say about this famous story of Jesus, it’s a story about a messed-up family. Once upon a time, there was a father who had two sons. He doesn’t seem to have any influence over either one.

The younger son says, in essence, “Dad, I wish you were dead. Give me my share of the inheritance that I’m going to get when you’re gone.” He shows his father no respect, and simply demands what he believes he deserves. When he receives it, he blows it all, even to the last nickel. His life is a complete waste. When he hits bottom, he rehearses a speech to con his father into taking him in.

Meanwhile, later on, the older brother sits out in the family field, his arms crossed. He refuses to reconcile when his brother returns. He has no joy that his brother is home safe and sound. Instead he complains to their father about “that son of yours.” He will not budge. He is set in his ways. He has convinced himself that his own lack of adventure and unwillingness to take risks is a sign of his superior character, so he has no time for the party.

That is a messed-up family. When the story concludes, there is no sign of any movement. They are just stuck. 

We have no assurance that, the next day, after the younger boy sleeps off the effects of the party, that he’s not going to steal a couple of silver candlesticks and head for Vegas again. And so far as we know, his older brother spent the night in the field, arms crossed, jaw clenched. He probably didn’t get a wink of sleep, and he’s going to blame his brother for that, too. 

It is a single parent family. No mama in sight. No sisters either. Just this father whose broken heart was mended when Number Two came home, only to have it broken again when Number One Son refuses to forgive.   

Nobody wonders why Jesus tells a story like this. It’s a story about a family, and family is where we have to work out the issues of life and death, wealth and waste, mercy and punishment. The Bible never backs off from that. The great lessons of love and grace don’t make any sense for any of us unless we can work them out within the crazy circles of relatives where God places every one of us.

I remember an older preacher telling me about his first job. He graduated Yale Divinity School and took a job as the chaplain of a Christian campground in South Carolina. That’s where he was from. He couldn’t wait to get down there, have Bible studies, and work with the teenagers. Every night was going to be a family campfire. They would sing Kum BaYah and make s’mores. He couldn’t wait to get started.

Then the campers started rolling in. His counseling load grew until it was overwhelming. All these families that never spend time together were now forced to spend seven days and nights under the same roof. One rainy day, he had to phone the sheriff six times because of domestic disputes.  So he quickly resigned and took a job as a pastor of a United Methodist church. That has to be easier than being a chaplain at a Christian family camp, right?

We don’t know anything, really, about the two sons in Jesus’ story. Did the younger one want to get off the farm and head for bright lights in the big city? Did the older brother lack imagination and initiative? We don’t know. The story is two thousand years old and sounds so familiar.

Maybe the story is even older than that. Ken Bailey, the Bible scholar, says Jesus did not have to invent this tale out of the air, especially with families the way they are. In fact, says Bailey, Israel already had a story of two brothers who didn’t see eye to eye. That was the story of Jacob and Esau. They were twins, and they were nothing alike. Jacob was the younger, a thief and swindler. Esau was dutiful and obedient, and never strayed far from home.

You may remember that Jacob tricked his brother into giving him the birthright as Number One Son. Then, with his mother’s help, he fooled his father into giving him the irrevocable family blessing – a blessing usually given upon death. Jacob had no scruples, and Esau was furious when he discovered what his brother has gotten away with.

It’s a familiar story, isn’t it? In some of our families, it is the same old story repeated every generation or two. And the question is, what are we going to do when there is anger, bickering, and frozen conflict?  What are we going to do when lines are drawn, positions are fixed, and nobody is willing to budge? What do you think?

I will never forget when Eddie showed up in the wrong room. It was his sister’s wedding, as I recall. Eddie had done hard time for robbing a gas station. He had been desperate and foolish, thinking to himself, “I will just get some money now and pay it back later.” Sadly it didn’t work that way. He disappeared from public view after his arrest. Nobody talked about it.

When his sister Darla got married, the whole family was there. You know how it is: people were sitting on opposite sides of the aisle, neither side giving much time to the other. The back door opened and Eddie walked in. His head was shaved, his face was grey. When he walked in, everybody froze. Nobody moved. Some of the people on this side of the aisle glared at some of the people on that side of the aisle as if his appearance was their fault. Nobody spoke. Nobody budged . . . until Darla dropped her bouquet and ran down the aisle. She hugged her broken brother and said, “I’m so glad you are here!” With that, there was a huge exhale and nobody knew what to do.

Do you know what she did? She took Eddie up the aisle and introduced him to her new husband. After the service, she took him around the fire hall and introduced him to everybody at the reception. I was just a kid, but I didn’t know you could do that. The world that I lived in taught us to stay to ourselves, to hold fast to our intractable positions. I don’t think I had ever before seen such aggressive grace.

That is how the father acts in the story of Jesus. It’s really a story about him. “There was a man who had two sons…” and he is aggressively gracious toward each one. He goes out to each son. Unlike any other father in the first century Palestinian world, this father leaves the seat of power and runs to embrace the returning younger son. That’s not how it normally worked back then; you go all the way to your father. You never expect him to come toward you. In a shame-based village culture, that father runs to welcome his boy, thus signaling to the whole village, “Hands off, he is all mine, and I refuse to punish him since he returns to me.” He cuts off the well-polished apology speech (did you notice that?) and cries out, “Bring him a princely robe and my signet ring. Call the caterers and hire the zydeco band. It is time for a joyful party!”

Likewise, the father goes out to the older son, too. He knows it cannot truly be a joyful party unless everybody is welcomed to the rejoicing. In his flesh, he makes real the words that he speaks to the self-righteous son: “All that I have is yours. Everything that is mine belongs to you as well - - even that crazy brother of yours that just returned home. He is your brother too.”  As far as know, the father is still out there, begging that hard-head to come and enjoy the barbeque.

Now here is the point: neither one of those boys did anything to deserve such treatment. That is the definition of grace: it is favorable treatment that we cannot win and could not deserve. Yet it comes anyway. Grace is aggressive. It comes toward us from a God who moves beyond any system of punishment or reward. Grace comes in complete goodness, for the purpose of creating joy, to the end that all people love one another as brothers and sisters.

This is the Gospel. This is the mission of Jesus. Luke says this is the message first sung by angels to the shepherds: Unto you is born this day a Savior, who is the Christ, the Lord. If I may translate that First Nowell: You shepherds weren’t even looking for him. But in him, God came looking for you

How amazing this is! In the midst of dysfunction that characterizes the whole human family, God runs to us with aggressive grace. God does not want anybody to stay broken or to keep fighting.

Like old Jacob and Esau! When Jacob realizes God is bringing them face to face, with all the bad blood between them, what does he do? He marches his kids and his women-folk at the front of the line, hoping that will soften Esau’s heart just a little bit. Then he braces himself for the inevitable. But that’s not good enough for Esau. He falls on Jacob, holds him, embraces him, begins to weep.

Welcome home, little brother. Welcome home.

This is a snapshot of the mission of God. It is a picture of what God’s people – God’s Christian people – are called to be: ambassadors of God’s aggressive grace.

I have great respect for the father in this story. No hesitation. No hangups. No fear. No guilt trip. No revenge. No bitterness. If he had any such baggage, he let it go. You know how hard that is? It takes superhuman ability, some power way beyond what the rank and file person has. You need the ability to let go of hurts. You need the skill of welcoming the warlike, the resentful, and the headstrong. You need to look upon those who reject you and feel nothing but deep love. I consider this, and wonder if I ever could become like that. It is such hard work.

Then it strikes me that I already have a Father like that. So do you. Boundless mercy. Unrequited love. Watching and waiting, even pursuing, always glad to see me. Ever know grace like that?

With our house emptying out this summer, my wife decided we needed a dog. I confess what a few of you know. I am not a dog person. Dogs need to get up early. Dogs leave white spots on your lawn. Dogs need somebody to watch them when you hit the road. I prefer cats, even though all my cats have died. I didn't want a dog. But my wife said, “I want a dog.” And I realized if I wanted a wife, I needed a dog.

So a springer spaniel named Pippa came to live with us earlier this year. It has gone pretty well. We have lost a few shoes. There are some spots on my lawn. But Pippa has big brown eyes and cute floppy ears. And she doesn't seem to care that I am not, by biological makeup, a dog person. No, she sits on the back of the living room chair and watches for me. She gets energized when I pull into the driveway. 

Pippa is always glad to see me. With something like a pure love, she does not ask any questions or remind me of my faults. She makes no requirement for my return. Just dances around with excitement and barks. It is as if she is saying, “Welcome home! I want you close by my side.”

That's a parable. 

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

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